joanne lee


north circular

The cooling towers at Tinsley were a landmark for Sheffield: a symbol of returning home and a welcome distraction from the bright lights of Meadowhall. Sadly they were finally demolished in 2008, despite a campaign to save them. This essay was written for a publication which unfortunately never came to fruition; in it I meditate upon the circular structures that have recurred throughout Sheffield’s architectural history.

It seems to me that Sheffield has had a particular fascination with circular structures. The cityscape is punctuated by them: the pair of cooling towers at Tinsley overseeing northern routes into town; the Norton water tower, leggy on its stilts; gasometers levitating gracefully at Blast Lane, Neepsend and Blackburn; the strange ‘igloo’ by the main rail route south, which contains salt for gritting winter roads and the chain-smoking chimney of the incinerator – all of which are navigational lodestars, the presence of which ensures that, whilst walking, one can never be lost for long.

In the city centre too, there have been a constellation of circular forms, though many now no longer exist, demolished to make way for a new ‘improved’ vision of the city centre. One notable casualty was the steel lined ring of the Goodwin Fountain, which capped the main shopping street for over thirty years and functioned as a pedestrian roundabout of sorts, directing shoppers out from Fargate to Pinstone Street, Devonshire Green and beyond. Having grown increasingly tatty, it was removed, but its site, repaved along with the rest of the street, was soon spattered by countless roundels of gum, dropped, I suspect, as people readied themselves to take buses home from the stops fringing Fargate. Not far away, the Registry Office, the round building fondly dubbed ‘the Wedding Cake’, was tucked in at the back of the Town Hall: it too fell victim to the ‘Heart of the City’ master plan and was recently demolished.

Further down, towards the Markets, city planners once dreamt up the ‘Hole in the Road’ (officially ‘Castle Square’) a curious subterranean network of underpasses and shops making use of the central space of a huge roundabout. Early photographs show it as a vision of smart 60’s modernity, replete with an illuminated ornamental fish tank set into the wall. It was a magical and marvellous place clearly in love with the future. By the time I knew it, however, its partially roofed arena was often filthy and piss-smelling, populated mainly by street drinkers and scowling teenage goths. The glorious future had succumbed to a more Dickensian reality and so the Hole was filled in, allegedly using rubble from the demolition of another of the city’s failed visionary projects - Hyde Park Flats. Elsewhere, the underpass on Arundel Gate gobbled up much of the concrete from the demolished Town Hall ‘Egg Box’ extension. This compulsive coprophagia seems inherent in the cycle of development, dereliction and regeneration, but I began to wonder if the city was not simply erasing but was in fact feeding upon its mistakes…

It seems that when the future gets re-imagined in Sheffield it rarely turns out well: it’s no accident that Sheffield provided the location for two post-apocalyptic fictions (in Threads the scenario was nuclear war whilst in The Last Train a meteorite had struck the Earth). In reality, events may have been less dramatic, but changes to the cityscape have nevertheless been profound. So many of the ambitious post-war architectural dreams fell foul of changing lives and tastes, or a municipal unwillingness or inability to spend money on appropriate upkeep. Even more contemporary projects, such as the millennial National Centre for Popular Music, have seemed tainted with those past failures and it came as little surprise when it closed not long after completion, ultimately transformed into a student union and yet another place to get drunk. I can’t help but think that, given what has happened to so many other circular structures in Sheffield, maybe the NCPM’s mistake was to make its four interlinked buildings round? A few successful circular survivors do exist however: the Crucible, which still offers theatre ‘in the round’, as well as that yearly homage to small spheres – the World Snooker Championships, and there is the new Winter Gardens glasshouse whose profile is a dramatic arc, though not a complete circle. The circular habit is a hard one to break.

A sustained circular master plan does seem to exist on a much grander scale. In the centre of Sheffield, the linear straggle of shopping streets, which trail from the Moor to the Markets, and dogleg untidily into Division Street, are restrained by the Ring Road. Whilst other circles may be expunged (the Cooling Towers, of course, being next on the list) the Ring Road strengthens its grip: work on the final section was only begun in 2005 and bulldozers have since carved a brutal slice through one of Sheffield’s oldest areas. Consuming the energy of all those erased circles, the Ring Road continues to breed roundabouts, which then centrifugally dispatch vehicles to suburbs, townships, motorways or beyond. Planners are always obsessed with issues of circulation: the city must not seize up! But should you wish to counter the hegemony of the car and (almost) circumnavigate the city more slowly, then you can take to the fourteen miles of footpath that make up the Round Walk, a route which meanders through Victorian parks and ancient pastures, amongst the intensity of bluebells and beneath towering beech trees, and which offers an entirely different view of England’s fourth city.

I suppose the circular form is a sort of Ur-structure, and I’d like to believe that Sheffield’s planners, architects and builders realised this at some subliminal level. It is suggestive of both the distant past and the future yet to come: I think of prehistoric stone circles and hut rings, certain concentric castles, of classical coliseums and domes, and of stadiums or festival pavilions - even the Dome! From mid-century the circular came to signify the future: from flying saucers and the original Festival of Britain dome, via Sputnik spacecraft, spherical TV sets or vacuum cleaners and the proliferation of science fiction films, which produced a craving for white circular tables and transparent ball-shaped chairs. Today these ‘space age’ forms look dated, as visions of the future always do - as will today’s ‘futuristic’ architecture, the product of computer algorithms that result in the design of crumpled, anamorphic blobs. Now re-named ‘retro’, they are increasingly popular, probably due to the lingering sense of optimism and possibility with which they still resonate. But as well as the architecture that endures, the circle also speaks of temporary structures, the yurts and tipis inhabited by nomads or the passing entertainments of Ferris wheels and circus Big Tops; the roundabouts at countless fairs, which afterwards will ghost their sites with circles yellowed into the grass.

The circular exclaims its difference amidst the viral spread of dull rectangles: all those ticky-tacky Barratt Homes and the big windowless sheds of retail and distribution. Circles are dynamic, their curves sexy. Definitely the most curvaceous structures in Sheffield are the Tinsley cooling towers, whose stout bodies appear as if firmly corseted, and who teeter on improbably thin struts, calling to mind a pair of big women in high heels. These gorgeous ladies keep their counsel above a confluence of road, rail, tram, canal and river: each of which have been the various conduits of Sheffield’s development. They seem equally at home in their proximity to the sanitised shopping temple of Meadowhall (where the city gorges itself on consumer goods and fast food) and to the earthy aromas of the sewage treatment plant (where unfathomable processes of filtration, maceration, sedimentation, oxidation and precipitation deal with the city’s waste). Some have suggested that the cooling towers are reminiscent of giant chess pieces, and I agree that they seem great queens presiding over the shifting stratagems and game play of Sheffield’s urban development. They’ve watched the industry of the Don Valley come almost to a stop, till the blank facades of demolished works were overcome with opportunistic buddleia, and then watched the tide turn and the Valley fill with activity once more. That they themselves might now fall prey to demolition seems somehow incomprehensible.

For me, the circular forms have come to represent the way the city has felt the need to tear itself down every few years in order to start over again: these dramatic births and deaths are always ultimately cyclical. I note that these days the city is trying a new (old) shape. The ‘Cutting Edge’, a blade-like piece of public sculpture leading from the station to the city centre, simultaneously evokes Sheffield’s knife-making traditions whilst suggesting that the city can lead the way once more, that it can cut itself off from a recent past designated as failing. The symbolism tries a bit too hard, at least in respect of the reality of the corporate vision, which seeks only to make Sheffield like other ‘successful’ cities. Rather than seeking real innovation, the Council’s master plan relies upon the all too familiar application of ‘continental’ style paving, ‘destination’ shopping and ‘luxury’ apartments. Sheffield surely deserves better. Beyond the corporate façade, however, the city remembers to take risks; it continues to reinvent itself and nurture its creative awkward squad. Behind the heavy symbolism of the ‘Cutting Edge’, remains the memory of all those wheels that have been necessary to make a blade: water wheels, rolling mills, grindstones, buffing and polishing discs. I reassure myself that the Sheffield circle still turns.